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Harry Cook

On April 17, 2007, I interviewed Harry Cook.  Harry got started in shrimp farming in 1959 and kept at it until 1996.  In 2005, he retired and donated his library to Texas A&M University.


Shrimp News: Where did you go to college?


Harry Cook: The University of Nevada in Reno from 1952 to 1957.  I grew up in New York State and my family moved to Reno when I was a senior in high school.  I studied wildlife management because I was always interested in the outdoors.  After graduation, I was drafted into the Army for two years, serving most of my time in El Paso, at Fort Bliss.  In 1959, I went back to Reno and was a bill collector for a few months and then got a job with the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which later became the National Marine Fisheries Service, in Galveston, Texas.  Three other people were hired at about the same time—to study the life history of Gulf of Mexico shrimp.  The lab didn’t have a seawater system.  Wooden troughs about two feet by three feet were used as rearing containers, but they were not very successful for growing shrimp.  Shortly thereafter, however, the lab got a modern seawater system.


Shrimp News: What was your job?


Harry Cook: When we first started we had trouble finding gravid brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus), so the head of my section, Bill Renfro, got some Xiphopenaeus, a tiny shrimp that lives in the surf and is easy to capture, for us to work with.  With Bill as the lead author, we published a paper that described its nauplii.  Later, we got some brown shrimp to spawn.  The first thing we did was draw pictures of the larval stages so that we could identify them in our seawater samples.  We published the life history of the brown shrimp and then did a key to the genera, but never did get down to the species level.  There were researchers in the red tide section that knew about algal culture.  They were a big help because we were feeding the larval shrimp (zoea) algae.  We were learning to culture algae and shrimp at the same time.  Milton Lindner was the lab director at that time and he got permission for us to develop shrimp hatchery technology!


We relied mostly on the work of Motosaku Fujinaga in Japan who was using the algae Skeletonema to feed shrimp larvae, so we used it also.  We had the shrimp in rectangular fiberglass tanks that were about two feet deep.  The circulation was not very good.  The algae would settle out and the shrimp larvae would concentrate in the corners.  We were also growing brine shrimp in inverted carboys and saw how the water circulation kept them well distributed and the debris from clumping up, so I decided to rear the larval shrimp in fiberglass tanks with conical bottoms, with an airstone bubbler at the bottom of the cone and around the sides of the tank.  We also developed a filter system that allowed water exchange without damaging the larvae.  I had visited an oyster hatchery on Long Island in New York State that was using airlifts in its algae tanks.  When I got back to Texas, I put airlifts in our tanks, and that basically became the “Galveston Method”—tanks with conical bottoms, airlifts for aeration, a daily batch exchange of water and the addition of live feed, either a mixture of Skeletonema and Monochrysis for protozea, or brine shrimp for mysis and postlaravae.


In Florida, Tom Costello and Don Allen at the Miami Lab of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries used fluorescent light bulbs to grow algae indoors.  At the Galveston Lab, we were growing algae in outdoor greenhouses, but eventually fluorescent bulbs and indoor culture became part of the Galveston Method.


The water in our closed seawater system had a mineral imbalance that became a major problem.  In England, a researcher reported better production when using EDTA in algal cultures, so we tried it and it turned out to be a real breakthrough.  EDTA is a chelator that helps improve water quality by maintaining a favorable balance of minerals.  Since we had such good luck with the EDTA in algae culture, we decided to put it in the shrimp tanks, and that’s when we started getting better larval survivals.  We didn’t count the algae; we used a spectrometer to get an estimate of the algal density.  To feed the larval shrimp (P. aztecus), every day we would remove a portion of the algae so that it would grow back to an optimum density by the next day.  We also grew some white shrimp, P. setiferus, by accident.  We had some white shrimp in the tanks, but we didn’t know that they had attached spermataphores, and they spawned and hatched out.  It wasn’t until after I left the Galveston Lab that other researchers developed maturation techniques for shrimp.


Shrimp News: Corny Mock, who was working at Galveston at the same time, got a lot of the credit for the development of the Galveston Method, and there was very little mention of your work.  Why?


Harry Cook: Corny was new to the shrimp farming program although he had worked at the lab for a long time.  The World Mariculture Society asked me to present a paper on our findings.  I was about to leave for a job at Dow Chemical, so I asked Corny to write it.  Well, when the paper came out my name was not on it.  Maybe it was my fault because when I left, he said how do you want to handle the authorship, I said you decide, thinking it would be either Mock and Cook or Cook and Mock.  Well, Corny only put his and Alice Murphy’s name on it, even though I had developed most of the technology with Alice’s help.


There were a bunch of people growing shrimp in the United States during the late 1960s, and we all shared our ideas.  The National Sea Grant was just getting started.  Dr. Claire Idyll at the University of Florida wrote an article on shrimp farming for National Geographic magazine in 1965 that got everyone excited.  Dr. Calhoun at Texas A&M University was a great money raiser, and he got A&M into shrimp culture.  There was a lot of interest in Louisiana.  The Louisiana Land and Exploration Company was interested in using its marshlands for shrimp farming.  The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and Nicholls State University were looking at shrimp farming.  Jerry Broom with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Grand Terre Island ran a pilot pond culture station for  shrimp.  And the World Mariculture Society, which later changed its name to the World Aquaculture Society, got started at Louisiana State University in 1969.


Shrimp News: When did you leave Galveston?


Harry Cook: I left in 1969 because I was very interested in commercial shrimp farming.  There was a man on the Bolivar Peninsula that wanted us to supply him with postlarvae so that he could raise bait shrimp, but we were not allowed to do that because we were a government research facility.  Dow Chemical had an agreement with Sea Grant and Texas A&M to look into shrimp farming, so I took a job with Dow and built a small hatchery.  We had a little building where we studied postlarvae feeds in cooperation with Texas A&M and Ralston Purina.  We produced and sold one lot of postlarvae to a farm in Honduras.  Everyone got excited about the deal, but to remain a research hatchery, we again had to stop selling postlarvae.  When the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations approached me with a job offer in Thailand, I took it.


Shrimp News: Did you move to Thailand?


Harry Cook: Yes, in 1971, I moved the whole family to Thailand.  I spent a year there working with the Thai Fishery Department.  FAO had a plan to start a five-year program to develop shrimp farming in Thailand.  We worked with some small cooperative farms a short way from Bangkok.  We would go there several times a week and help the shrimp farmers, who thought the postlarvae rose up out of the mud in the bottom of the estuary.  They didn’t realize that they arrived from offshore with the incoming tide.  They did not stock their ponds with shrimp. They were working with wild postlarvae (P. merguiensis). Rudimentary, diesel-powered pumps with wooden paddles were used to lift the water into the ponds.  Postlarval shrimp and fish were carried into the ponds with the incoming water.  We taught them to use teaseed cake, which contains  saponin, to kill the fish and then to fertilize the water to increase production.


They were poor people and reluctant to spend money on fertilizer.  We told them we would pay for the fertilizer, but they wanted us to cover their losses if they didn’t make money.  Eventually we grew a couple of batches of P. merguiensis at the lab in Bangkok and took a few thousand out to the cooperatives.  When the farmers saw the postlarvae, the elders surrendered to our ideas because they realized we could help them.


We also started a couple of demonstration shrimp farms, one of them in Chantiburi.  It had very low production, many problems and was considered a failure.  But when I visited that area five years later, it was covered with shrimp farms.  How come?  Our project was more or less a failure, but now there were shrimp farms everywhere.  What happened?  Unknown to us, the manager of the Chantiburi farm had sneaked in an early season harvest and made a lot of money on it.  Well the local people heard about this and started their own farms.  We were in Bangkok and did not know what had happened.


I only stayed in Thailand for one year because the Japanese had a more attractive program in terms of money and things they could do for the farmers.  I realized that the Thai Fisheries Department was going to go with the Japanese program, so FAO decided that it was probably best to let the Japanese government do it and we closed down our project.


After that first year in Thailand, I came back to the states and tried to start a shrimp farm in Bay City, Texas.  It did not work out.  Then I went to Indonesia on another FAO project.  It was a big project with a large number of existing tidal ponds in Jepara, Java. I built a small hatchery.  The project leader was an Indian named Alikuni.  I was there for a year in 1973 and 1974.  To build a shrimp pond, they dug a huge rectangular trench and used the dirt from the trench to build the dikes, so they would wind up with a deep area around the base of the dikes and a flat area in the center of the pond.  Shrimp in our ponds were harvested by draining the pond water through a net in the outlet gate.  The tidal range in central Java is small, limiting the amount of water exchange that could be accomplished.  We brought in someone to design a good pumping system because we didn’t want to rely on tidal exchange.  It wasn’t installed until after I left, but it was one of the first modern pumps used to fill shrimp ponds in Indonesia.


I visited a very rudimentary shrimp farm that would lower the level of the pond so that there was only water in the trench.  Then they would make two barriers out of hay, put them at either end of the trench, and twenty men would push them together to concentrate the shrimp, which they would capture with dip nets.  Any other shrimp would have died under these circumstances, but not monodon.  It’s a tremendous animal.  It’s like carp.  You can’t kill it.  It grows in places that other shrimp will not grow.  It’s tougher than vannamei.


Shrimp News: When you came back to Texas, did you try to start another shrimp farm?


Harry Cook: Yes, I had an agreement with Texas A&M and Booth Fisheries.  Jack Parker was the head of the Texas A&M shrimp program at the time, which had a demonstration farm in Alvin, Texas.  They gave us a pond to test some of the things that we had done in Thailand and Indonesia, primarily low density stocking in fertilized ponds.  It did not work out because we pumped more fish larvae than shrimp larvae into the ponds.  When the first harvest was bad, Booth Fisheries backed out, and that was the end of that project.


In 1975, I went to the Philippines to work on an FAO regional program, South China Sea Programme.  I assisted in development of a large fishery development project in Pang Nga, Thailand, which was the first FAO project to include both fishery and aquaculture components.  I was also able to include a master fish farmer position at an aquaculture demonstration farm at Gelang Patah, Malaysia.  FAO had routinely included master fishermen in fishery development projects, but this was the first master fish farmer.  With the assistance of Dr. Rabanal, I helped develop the first shrimp farming manual.  I then switched to a local project with the FAO to train bank extension workers in how to supervise loans to milkfish and shrimp farmers.  We set up training programs in four places around the country.  At that time there were no purely shrimp farms.  Shrimp, P. monodon, captured from the wild were polycultured with milkfish.  The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), a research center on Panay Island supported by Japan, was conducting research on all aspects of shrimp culture and was working with aquaculturists to monoculture shrimp.


After the Philippines, from 1978 to 1981, I worked for the FAO in Rome, Italy, in Dr. T.V.R. Pillay’s world aquaculture program.  Dr. Pillay had assembled a multi disciplinary team of aquaculture specialists.  I was the salt water aquaculture specialist.  We traveled around the world developing aquaculture projects.


After that, I spent three years in southern Malaysia (1981 to 1984) at the Aquaculture Research Centre in Gelang Patah.  Research was done on pond culture of shrimp and sea bass.  Sea bass were collected from the wild.  The government had a hatchery in Penang which supplied P. monodon postlarvae.  By that time, shrimp feed was being manufactured in Taiwan and Thailand, but was not available in Malaysia.  We brought in Dr. Kanazawa from Japan to formulate a shrimp feed and had an animal feed processor in Singapore make it for us.  Production at the station was severely limited because the ponds were constructed on acid sulfate soil.  I brought in a team of scientists led by Dr. Simpson from Colombia University’s Lamont Geological Laboratory to study the problem and their research resulted in real improvements in how to construct and manage aquaculture ponds built on acid sulfate soils.


After I came back to the United States in 1984, Dr. Clarence Idyll at the University of Miami and I went on a consulting job in Sri Lanka for a month.  On my way back to the United States from that job, I came through Vancouver, Canada, to attend an aquaculture conference, where I met a lawyer from Texas who wanted to build a shrimp farm.  He had the investors all lined up.  The principal one was a wealthy oilman, another was a real estate man.  Unfortunately, the oil business took a hit and the primary investor withdrew his support.  We then had to locate other investors and never did obtain adequate financing and had to do things on the cheap.  For example, my wife and I built all the water exchange gates ourselves.  The first year was a disaster; construction took longer than expected.  The only shrimp we could get were white shrimp (P. setiferus) from Chris Howell’s hatchery in the Florida Panhandle, but they didn’t do well.  After a second round of financing the next year Chris had some P. vannamei and we had better luck.  We started there in 1984, and by 1988 we were doing pretty good and expected to make our first profit.  But in September, we got hit with a disease.  After finding dead shrimp in the weekly population sample in one of the ponds, we drained it and there were dead shrimp carpeting the bottom of the pond.  I took a sample up to Dr. Ken Johnson at Texas A&M who was not able to immediately identify the cause. He suggested the possibility that it might be a one pond occurence and that if that was the case I should not be too concerned.  He was going to study it some more.  A week later, shrimp starting dying in all the ponds.  We began harvesting immediately, but lost more that half the crop.  The shrimp were dying faster than we could harvest them.  We had no idea what was going on.  We didn’t know much about shrimp diseases twenty years ago.  I spent that winter trying to find out what was going on and didn’t discover until later that it was a disease that had previously killed shrimp at the Texas A&M research facility.  My son and I lived on the farm that winter, trying to figure out what went wrong, and preparing for the next years stocking. However, in the spring the investors kicked us out.  I had put all my savings into the farm, so we had some hard times after that.


Shrimp News: What did you do next?


Harry Cook: For a time I served at a part time technical advisor to a shrimp farm in Los Mochis, Mexico.  Then in 1990, I was contacted by Harvey Persyn who along with Henry Clifford owned a company, Tropical Mariculture Technology (TMT), which was managing a number of shrimp farms in Colombia.  He asked me to join them as one of their employees to provide technical oversight to their clients.  Harvey had worked for me at Dow Chemical.  Later Harvey went to work for Purina in Crystal Springs, Florida, but we remained friends and always stayed in contact, a letter or two every year.  For several years, I traveled back and forth between the USA and Colombia.


In 1993, FAO contacted me to evaluate the economic viability of shrimp farming in Nicaragua.  I went in and out of Nicaragua for a year, working with the fisheries department on the best ways to develop shrimp farming.  While there, I met Emilio Baltodano and he wanted to start a shrimp farm.  We got together and I designed and helped him build the CAMPA shrimp farm on the Estero Real in northern Nicaragua, as a consultant, not an employee.  We stocked wild postlarvae purchased from collectors and also bought postlarvae from a hatchery in Costa Rica.  The construction went well and we had a fantastic first harvest.  I predicted something like 1,200 pounds per hectare and we exceeded that by a large margin.  Then the Taura virus hit and production never recovered.  I stayed on three more years, and we worked out many water management techniques, but we never matched the production that we got from the first crop.


Shrimp News: When did you and Hank Clifford go into business together?


Harry Cook: As mentioned earlier, Hank and I worked together in Colombia, even shared an apartment at one of the projects, and chummed around a lot.  When Henry and Harvey Persyn dissolved their partnership, Henry got a new client and was working in Venezuela. I was working in Nicaragua.  Hank asked if I was interested in a partnership, and I said sure. Sometimes we would exchange jobs for a month at a time; he would come up to Nicaragua and I would go down to Venezuela.  By the time my contract in Nicaragua was finished  Henry had obtained a client in Brazil. We worked there for a year, alternating months on site.  Then Henry went to work for Mark Rosenblum at Maritech in northern Mexico.  When our project in Brazil finished up in 1997, Henry got me a job working at Maritech.  I lived in Mazatlan, Mexico and shared an office with Henry who headed up a team of experienced shrimp aquaculturists who provided technical advice to farms which purchased postlarvae from Maritech’s hatcheries. I worked there until 1999 when I retired for medical reasons.


My entry into retirement was eased because Maritech kept me on part time to maintain a software program which I had developed. Then Henry recommended me as a technical consultant to Dupont  which was getting sued by shrimp farmers in Honduras who thought a DuPont banana pesticide was affecting their shrimp production. I reviewed farm records at home for about a year.  My last involvement with shrimp was when Henry and I wrote a series of articles for Aquaculture Magazine in 2001.


Shrimp News: Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to put on the record?


Harry Cook: Yes, none of the major developments in shrimp farming, including the development of the Galveston hatchery technology was one person’s doing.  There were a lot of people involved that you never hear about.  Dr. Gordon Gunter in Mississippi was one of the driving forces in getting the World Aquaculture Society started, along with Ted Ford and Terry Leary.  Jerry Broom did a lot of the pioneering work in shrimp pond culture and you never hear about it.  Dr. Idyll’s group at the University of Miami had a big impact on the development of shrimp farming in Ecuador.  A lot of the people who worked under Dr. Idyll went to Ecuador and started businesses there.  In fact, it was a whole bunch of people in the United States that got modern shrimp farming started in the Americas, and I think Sea Grant and the World Mariculture Society had a lot to do with that.  The Sea Grant money flowed to the University of Miami, to Nicholls State University, Louisiana State University and to Texas A&M.  Many people put the shrimp farming puzzle together.


Information: Harry Cook, 1595 Grosenbacher Road, #2, San Antonio, TX 78245 USA (phone 210-679-7848, fax 210-679-7848, email harry-cook@sbcglobal.net).


Source: Harry Cook, telephone interview by Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International.  April 17, 2007.

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